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William H. Macy Is 'Shameless' On Showtime.

As the alcoholic paterfamilias Frank Gallagher on the Showtime series Shameless, the actor enjoys portraying a man with a dark side. But he says it's Frank's better qualities that make him sustainable as a character.

35:05

Other segments from the episode on January 30, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 30, 2013: Interview with William H. Macy; Review of Paloma Faith's album "Fall to Grace"; Review of television programs "The Americans" and "House of Cards."

Transcript

January 30, 2013

Guest: William H. Macy

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest, William H. Macy, is a veteran actor of stage, film and television who's perhaps best known for his role in "Fargo," which earned him an Oscar nomination. Among his other films are "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "State and Main," "The Cooler" and most recently "The Sessions," in which he plays a priest advising a quadriplegic on whether to engage a sexual surrogate.

Macy is currently starring in the Showtime series "Shameless," an edgy comedy in which he plays the alcoholic father of six children in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Macy's character, Frank Gallagher, is so dissolute that he disappears for long periods of time. In this scene from the third season of "Shameless," Frank is woken up from a bender in Juarez, Mexico and has no idea how he got there. Here he tries to talk his way across the border to the U.S. without ID.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHAMELESS")

WILLIAM H. MACY: (As Frank Gallagher) Morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Passport?

MACY: (As Frank) Ah, yeah, no, must have left 'em in my other pants. But I'm an American citizen, Chi-town, born and raised.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) No passport, no entry.

MACY: (As Frank) What? Since when?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Since al-Qaida decided Americans needed killing.

MACY: (As Frank) You see, here's the thing, Agent Tacker(ph). You look like a man who occasionally enjoys a malt beverage. So you can understand every once in a while, a couple of drinks can get out of hand. But when it happens, the next morning you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get right back on the horse. Am I right, or am I right? Just let me cross. I won't tell anyone, I promise.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) You got a driver's license, any form of photo ID, Costco card?

MACY: (As Frank) Do I look like I've got a Costco card?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) You look like you need a course of penicillin and a lice comb. Call home, have somebody send you some kind of photo ID so we can use it to make you a temporary passport. Get cleaned up. I'm not letting you into this country so you can add to Texas' homeless population. Next.

DAVIES: William H. Macy, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Good to have you.

MACY: It's lovely to be here. Thank you.

DAVIES: What a rich role Frank Gallagher is. Do you want to describe Frank?

MACY: He's an alcoholic, drug-addicted narcissist who happens to have a wickedly good sense of humor, who's pretty smart, very ambitious, hard-working, personable, pretty well-read, surprisingly literate and a hell of a fun guy to be around. It's a great role. It's hard to make a mistake in this role. You can be outrageous. I can let myself go in a way that I've rarely done in my career. I can be less guarded as an actor.

That said, I also find it quite challenging. Sometimes some of the stuff that I'm given to perform is so despicable, and I feel that it's important that the audience always feel that Frank is redeemable somehow, someday. Otherwise my behavior would be completely boorish, and I think they would kill me off on this show. I'd be unwatchable.

DAVIES: Physically, you know, we just heard this border guard tell him that he needs - looks like he needs a shot of penicillin and a lice comb. Do you want to talk a little bit about creating the physical side of Frank as an actor?

MACY: I've said this a lot, but the whole notion of playing drunk, to my mind, is a bit more of a parlor trick and less acting art. I just happen to be pretty good at doing a drunk. It's more important that I concentrate on the scenes because, you know, it's very easy to just want to turn into the clown. And being a drunk is - it's very easy to show off.

But the physicality of it, the slurred speech, the way you stare at something, the way you focus and unfocus your eyes, I find that if I sort of plant in my head that he's really loaded but then superimpose upon that something urgent, in other words I guess what I'm saying is that Frank takes everything to the max.

So he argues vociferously for his point of view, and if you put all that drunkenness under there, it sometimes comes out pretty funny. As far as the look goes, with my long, long hair, and man it did get long at a point, you can't believe James, the guy that does my hair, James Dunham(ph), the tonnage of stuff he puts in my hair to make it look like that.

I'm much too good-looking for this role is what I'm trying to tell you.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: So you put the kind of stuff that would make your hair look like it hasn't been washed in three weeks.

MACY: I fear someday my neck will snap, that just the sheer weight of it will pull it over.

DAVIES: Well, as the show progresses, of course, we find new depths to which your character, Frank, will stoop to manipulate people and scam his next bar bill. And I thought we'd hear a scene. This is from the - I believe the third episode of the current season, where your character, Frank, has learned of a charity that will do great things for kids with terminal illnesses, like they gave one kid a basketball with expensive autographs.

And so he figures he's going to cash in by using his youngest son Carl and give him a terminal illness or make it seem that way. And so we're going to see the son(ph) in which you're setting Carl up to play the role here. Carl is played by a young actor, Ethan Cutkosky. And we'll just say that in the middle of the scene, this will help as people hear it, you start to shave his head, and then one of your older sons briefly interrupts and asks what's going on.

So this scene begins with - when you've just told Carl he has cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHAMELESS")

ETHAN CUTKOSKY: (As Carl Gallagher) Cancer? How did I get cancer?

MACY: (As Frank) You must have caught it from Grammy, son. If she had known that she had the contagious kind, I don't think she would have spent so much time with you in the basement cooking meth.

CUTKOSKY: (As Carl) Am I going to die?

MACY: (As Frank) I hope not. But right now, we have to fight and fight hard. You ready to fight with me, Carl?

(SOUNDBITE OF HAIR CLIPPERS)

CUTKOSKY: (As Carl) Why do we have to shave it?

MACY: (As Frank) Didn't you ever see any shows about cancer? Cancer people are always bald.

CUTKOSKY: (As Carl) Grammy wasn't bald.

MACY: (As Frank) Grammy hated life. She wanted to die. But you love life, and one of the most important ways you can fight the cancer is to let the sun rays in through your skull.

CAMERON MONAGHAN: (As Ian Gallagher) Why are you shaving Carl's head?

MACY: (As Frank) Lice.

MONAGHAN: (As Ian) Since when do you parent?

MACY: (As Frank) Since you dropped the ball. The vermin were literally jumping off his scalp.

MONAGHAN: (As Ian) Well, make sure you wash the sheets, too, OK?

MACY: (As Frank) Do I look like a woman?

CUTKOSKY: (As Carl) I have lice, too?

MACY: (As Frank) Yes, yes you do.

CUTKOSKY: (As Carl) Fiona's going to freak out.

MACY: (As Frank) No, Fiona is not going to freak out because Fiona is not going to know. You're a man now, Carl. The cancer makes you a man. And as a man, it's your job to keep secrets from the women who love you.

DAVIES: And that's our guest William H. Macy with the young Ethan Cutkosky in the current season of "Shameless," which is on Showtime. A lot of Frank in there. He's pretty quick on his feet there.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: He's pretty quick. I love that line. God, we have great writers, but - and as a man it's your job to keep secrets from the women who love us.

DAVIES: Right.

MACY: It sounds so true, doesn't it, in a way? I don't know.

DAVIES: You know, you said that you want to make sure that Frank doesn't get beyond the point of sympathy, and you don't want to - he doesn't - you don't want to make him evil. And I guess to some extent that means that Frank has to see himself as a guy who's in some way motivated by something other than cynical, evil things. How does a guy like Frank see himself?

MACY: Well, there it is. Well put. I think that's my job. I've got to take these actions that he performs, I have to take the plot, and I have to figure out why I'm the good guy in that story. The character is brilliantly conceived. Paul Abbott did this. There's a British version of this.

But his place in the family, he's sort of the spice that one, keep it alive and interesting but also he's the enemy. He's the bad guy. He does these terrible things to the family. And he has this excuse of the alcoholism. He's high all the time. And it allows the stories to unfold in this wonderful way, with Frank wreaking all this destruction. But you don't hate him for it because he's got his - they're all struggling. It's just a great stew that Paul Abbott put together of this family.

And I think it's my job - there's this interesting relationship between an actor, especially on a series after a couple of years, and the writers. It's the writers' job to put that character in uncomfortable situations, to throw that character off-kilter. And it's the actor's job to get the character back on-kilter, to make sense of all of this.

And it's been sort of a matter of pride to me that I go to the writers rarely and say you've gone too far, I don't know how to justify this, this is - this hurts my feelings, man, don't - I've only done it once or twice. And I liked to figure out why Frank is doing what he's doing. And the better answers I come up with the funnier it is, and it allows that character to live to fight another day.

DAVIES: It occurred to me that there must be times when you get these scripts and read what you're expected to do and say oh please. You said one or two times you've told the writers this goes too far. Can you give us an example?

MACY: No.

DAVIES: No? It stays in the shop?

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: No, I ain't saying. I've also gone to the writers' room and said, OK, I've got a crazy idea, and even they put their hands over their mouths, which is what a table read looks like. We sit down, we read these scripts, and everybody's covering some part of his or her face, going oh my God, are you kidding. Well, that's why it's called "Shameless."

DAVIES: We're speaking with William H. Macy. He stars in the Showtime series "Shameless," which is now in its third season. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor William H. Macy. He's starring in the Showtime series "Shameless." It's now in its third season. This is a remarkable set of young actors that play with you in this drama, and...

MACY: Ain't they?

DAVIES: Oh, they're just great, and most of them aren't people I've seen before. But they do a terrific job. And there you are, you're the veteran actor, and yet you're the guy in the plot who is the most dysfunctional, the one that they have to - whose messes they have to clean up. And - but on the set I wouldn't be surprised if you're often there the one who offers experience and gives guidance. Is there an interesting dynamic there?

MACY: It's interesting. It's not as you've described it. I - one of the best things that happened in our script was John Wells and Mark Mylod, who are two of our producers, John is the grand poobah, and they set the tone. And it's a hardworking set. It seems like minutiae, but, you know, when you take the script, and you print it, a smaller version, they're called sides, and you carry them in your back pocket so you can check the lines, and we decided not to have - John suggested that we decide not to have sides on the set.

And the message there was learn your lines. And I'm telling you, this cast, you could start filming them in their cars in the parking lot in the morning. They are ready to rock. Traditionally in television, you show up, you've got - it takes so long to shoot, you've got a lot of time to learn your lines. Well, this cast knows them inside and out.

It looks very improvisatory, but it is not. It's pretty much letter-perfect. And more than being the sort of the elder statesman, I'm with a fraternity of actors who find themselves in a series, which is akin to grabbing a moving locomotive and trying to hang on. So we are all peers trying to survive this thing.

DAVIES: Right, and while you're reading these lines, there's a - it's a very kinetic set, I'm sure. There's - it's usually in a tight space in a house, there's a lot going on there, sometimes fights and sex scenes and all kinds of things going on that requires, I suspect, a lot of care and discipline.

MACY: It does, and yet it's loose in a way that the series is loose. The offstage is not unlike the onstage. There's a little bit of pandemonium. We shoot the show in a way that a lot of shows are being shot now, which is a relatively new style because of the new technology. There are at least two cameras running all the time.

We have a tendency to do the entire scene every single take, even a three-, four-, five-page scene even that takes place in two or three rooms. Because of these cameras and because of the skill of our photography department, they follow us around. So unlike a big feature, which is so much about the shot, we go onstage, we try to make it work in the actual set in real time as if it were a play.

And we don't invite the camera department in until it's working in real time. Then they figure out how to take pictures of it because it's not so much about designed shots, it's about catching it. And they shoot a ton of stuff, and once these scenes start, you'd better know your lines because you'll just get rolled over.

It's frightening and sort of a high-wire act, but at the same time, it's exhilarating for actors. Traditionally in a big feature, you know, there's the moment. It's a three-page scene, which has been cut into three sections, and we'll take all day to do it. We'll shoot 10 pages in a day. Traditionally you'd cut this scene into three parts, and there's your moment in the scene, you know what I mean, your close-up where you get to the money.

And you'll sort of talk to the DP and the director, saying when will you get that, you know, later in the shot, you know, when's my close-up. And it's an awful thing because the tendency to want to try to do it a little better, and I'm making quote-marks, is huge when you get your close-up, and that's when you screw it all up, you know, throw it away. You know, don't - you can't do it better. Just do it again.

But your close-up, you get self-conscious. Well, the way we shoot, it was in the first season, I went to the DP, and I said when are you going to get that moment, you know, my little moment. And he said oh, dude, you're done. That was the second shot of the day. That was an hour and a half ago. No, I haven't shot you in the last three takes. No, we're shooting other stuff. It's - you're out of this scene.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: DP is director of photography, right?

MACY: Yeah. So it's good. It keeps you honest. You do the whole thing all the way every time.

DAVIES: When you were a young actor, you collaborated a lot with David Mamet, and I know that when you were on the show before, you talked about that. You did a lot of theater, and you worked with him both as a student and as an actor and as a writer. Is it true that when you were in New York that you were sometimes criticized at auditions when you were trying to get started for having diction that was too good?

MACY: Yes, yes, it happened a lot of times. I still don't understand it, but I think it was - well, I learned my aesthetic from Dave Mamet, and one of the things that drives him crazy, and by extension me crazy, is to go to the theater, or for that matter go to the movies and not be able to understand what the damn actor is saying. It puts me in a rage. I'm a writer myself, but irrespective of that: What did you say? I want to know what you said. I paid my money and, you know, you got a microphone shoved up your nostril. Can't you enunciate enough for me to understand?

DAVIES: We can understand what a drunk Frank Gallagher is saying because you pronounce the words clearly.

MACY: Well, I do, I do, and sort of a follow-up to that, your diction is too clear, there's something about this character, it's something about the speed with which we shoot it. I'm doing my best to be less and less respectful, if you will, of the process.

DAVIES: How?

MACY: In our theater company, with Felicity, with my wife, we talk about actors sometimes - some actors, they're good actors, quote-unquote, "good actors." And then you get these other actors who are completely not, quote-unquote, "good," meaning they're not team players. They're just all over the place.

They're hard to get to the set. They're unpredictable. They never do the same thing twice. You don't know what they're going to do. They, a lot of times, turn out to be - give the best performance. They're great. And I fall into the category of the good actor. And I'm trying to do less of that and be outrageous. I mean, the most obvious example of it is continuity.

The good actor makes sure that if I lift the cup to my lips on this line, I'll do it in every single take. And that takes attention. That takes a lot of energy to remember what you did. And I was always very good at that. And these days, my attitude is more: well, you'll figure it out. I didn't - I forgot it, yeah, sue me.

And also they don't worry about it. The way we cut this thing, they do such unorthodox cutting, it's thrilling. Who cares if the cup is a little out of continuity? If it takes you out of the movie, then it's a bad thing, but if you don't care, we'll let it go.

DAVIES: Well, I have to talk about "Fargo." I hope you don't mind, even though it's a few years back.

MACY: Oh, geez.

DAVIES: Oh, geez.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Thanks a bunch. You auditioned once, and then the story is that you didn't hear anything, and you went back and made a very strong case. Is that true?

MACY: Close. I auditioned for a smaller role, and they said: That's real good. You want to read Jerry? And I said yes, and so I went out of the room, spent 20 minutes, came back in, read Jerry. And they said: That's real good. You want to work on it and come tomorrow? I said yes. Every actor I knew in L.A., they did - they took stages. I was up all night. I memorized the whole script. I wanted this role.

So I went back in. They said: That's real good, that's real good. We'll be in touch. And then I heard through my agent that they were in New York auditioning. So I, jolly, jolly, got my ass on an airplane and flew to New York and crashed the audition. And I was making a joke, and luckily it landed, but I said: I'm afraid you're going to screw up your movie and cast someone else in this role.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: And they went ha, ha, ha. And I said: No, seriously, I'll shoot your dog if you don't give me this role. And I think Ethan had just gotten a dog.

DAVIES: And they took it the right way?

MACY: They took it the right way. That was a good day when I got that job.

DAVIES: And it did great things for your career, I assume. You got an Oscar nomination and I assume a lot more offers.

MACY: I don't know what I was thinking. I should have gotten one of those Oscar nominations earlier in my career. It does wonders. You're at the grown-ups' table. You - one big film like that, and the best thing that happens is that you don't have to audition anymore, which is, outside of my wife and children, the best thing that's ever happened to me.

DAVIES: William H. Macy stars in the Showtime series "Shameless," which is now in its third season. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with actor William H. Macy, who's starring in the Showtime comedy series "Shameless," which is in its third season and has just been renewed for a forth. When we left off, we were talking about his performance in the 1996 film "Fargo," written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

This is one of those films - and there are scenes of yours that I don't care how many times I've run across them when I'm channel-surfing, I will stop to watch them again. And I thought we'd play one of them, here. It's one that I always remember. You're Jerry Lundegaard, kind of at the center of the movie. He's a guy who wants to get rich and hatches a crazy plot that involves criminals kidnapping his wife. In the scene we're going to hear here, you are the sales manager of a car dealership. And a sheriff from another town - who's played by Frances McDormand - has come by. She's investigating one of these crimes related to this plot, and believes that the car that the criminals used may have come from this dealership. And it's fair to say that your character, Jerry Lundegaard, has some things to hide. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FARGO")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (as Marge) Mr. Lundegaard? Sorry to bother you again. Can I come in?

MACY: (as Jerry) Yeah, no, I'm kinda - I'm kinda busy here.

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) I understand. I'll keep it real short, then. I'm on my way out of town, but I was wondering - do you mind if I sit down? I'm carrying a bit of load, here.

MACY: (as Jerry) No, I...

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) Yeah, I just it's this vehicle I asked you about yesterday. I was just wondering...

MACY: (as Jerry) Yeah. Like I told you, we haven't had any vehicles go missing.

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) OK. Are you sure? Because, I mean, how do you know? Because, see, the crime I'm investigating, the perpetrators were driving a car with dealer plates. And they called someone who works here. So it'd be quite a coincidence if they weren't, you know, connected.

MACY: (as Jerry) Yeah. I see.

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) So how do you - have you done any kind of inventory recently?

MACY: (as Jerry) The car's not from our lot, ma'am.

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) But do you know that for sure without doing a...

MACY: (as Jerry) Well, I would know. I'm the executive sales manager.

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) Yeah. But I understand...

MACY: (as Jerry) We run a pretty tight ship, here.

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) I know, but - well, how did they establish that, sir? I mean, are the cars counted daily, or what kind of a routine here?

MACY: (as Jerry) Ma'am. I answered your question.

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) I'm sorry, sir?

MACY: (as Jerry) Ma'am, I answered your question. I answered the darn - I'm cooperating here, and there - there's no...

MCDORMAND: (as Marge) Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me. I'm just doing my job here.

MACY: (as Jerry) I'm - I'm not - I'm not arguing, here. I'm cooperating. And there's no - we're doing all we can.

DAVIES: And that's our guest William H. Macy, with Frances McDormand in the Coen Brothers film "Fargo."

MACY: Ethan Coen, man, that guy can write. Well, they can both write. I don't know who wrote that. I thought Ethan did. I don't know. Joel, I'm sorry if you wrote that.

DAVIES: Right. Well, that, yeah, it's a well-written scene. But I just, you know, it's a guy in a suit behind a desk, and I think you just bring those lines to life. I mean, his panic. You can just feel it.

MACY: I totally got what he was doing. He was trying to protect his family. I liked his MO. I liked the way he tried to protect his family, the way he tried to maneuver this, to come up with a good solution always.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: And it's funny. It was so funny. We did a great take - it kind of made it in, but it didn't. But when I go to meet Peter Stormare, you know, the two bad guys who were going to do the kidnapping, Steve Buscemi - and Steve were sitting in the thing. And I walked in, and I sort of imitated a Western. I walked in the door as if I had a gun in my coat pocket, or even a holster. I mean, I walked that way. I walked like I was heavily armed, and someone was about to die. And then, of course, the - it's Jerry Lundegaard, and the dialogue is - they say, you're late. And I go, no, no. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: But it was - I loved putting those two things together. Ethan just fell on the floor laughing.

DAVIES: Well, you know, it's interesting you say he's a guy who wants to protect his family because, you know, it seems that he, you know, he's got a comfortable life. His wife's father is rich so, you know, they don't have to worry about money. Why does he hatch this crazy plot, then, to have a big ransom and make money? It's so risky. It's, you know, crossing to the other side, going against the law.

MACY: It is. You know, everybody's the hero of his or her own story, and we do things for the best of intentions. And I think Jerry Lundegaard's point of view was an overpowering despot who was going to try to cull me out of my families herd, as it was, take care of the kids and the wife and cut me out of it and make decisions that I, as the father, should make. He's a despot. He's a bully.

DAVIES: That's the father-in-law, right? Yeah.

MACY: Yeah, the father-in-law. He's an awful, awful guy. And when you deal with people like that - and I'm sure Jerry Lundegaard was pretty sure that his father-in-law had broken the law himself. He's pretty loose with the facts. And so when you're dealing with people like that, you've got to fight them with their own weapons. He set the rules, so don't cry about it.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: This is Jerry's point of view. So I, you know, did I step outside the law? Well, technically, but no one was supposed to get hurt. These two fellas that he hired as kidnappers, they're good guys. They're just trying to make a living, and perhaps this will be enough money that they can go straight. And the wife won't get hurt. And the only thing that'll happen is that money, as it should, will go from my father-in-law's bank account to my bank account, where it belongs, anyway, in a normal world. I'm just trying to set the world straight. You know, that's what I do for a living.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: I take these outrageous situations and I recast the bad guy and the good guy.

DAVIES: I want to talk about one more film. That's "The Cooler" in 2003, directed by Wayne Kramer. It's sort of old Las Vegas, and you're cooler in a casino, which is, I guess, somebody who just brings bad luck when it's needed to a hot gambler. And I thought we would listen to a scene where you were with a cocktail waitress played by Maria Bello, who has taken an interest in you, in you're kind of explaining yourself. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE COOLER")

MACY: (as Bernie) You know what I do at the Shangri-La?

MARIA BELLO: (as Natalie) I asked around. You're a cooler. You turn winners into losers.

MACY: (as Bernie) Do you know how I do that?

BELLO: (as Natalie) Listen, I know there's a lot of stuff that happens in casinos all the time.

MACY: (as Bernie) I do it by being myself. People get next to me, their luck turns. It's always been that way.

BELLO: (as Natalie) Well, that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. There's a whole chapter of that in my book.

MACY: (as Bernie) I only got six more days. Well, really, almost five. I'm leaving town.

BELLO: (as Natalie) Only five more days? Then we shouldn't waste any more time. You want to go back to your place?

DAVIES: And that's Maria Bello and our guest William H. Macy in the 2003 film "The Cooler." I read that director Wayne Kramer knew he wanted you for this role, practically stalked you to get you in it. Is that true?

MACY: Yes. I had played many, many losers, and I - it was my fear that that's all I was going to play, these fellows who are in over their head. And so I had done a moratorium on the loser roles, and then "The Cooler" came across my desk. And Wayne, thank goodness, wouldn't take no for an answer, and kept coming back. I turned it down several times, and he said, you've got to do this. And I think when I read it again, I thought, he's right. I mean, there's losers, but then there's the loser. And this was the loser.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: It's a pure tale of the little guy standing up for right with the power of love behind him, and it's an unusual manifestation of it, this whole thing about luck and how much luck you have in your life. It's an - it was an interesting take on the whole question.

DAVIES: And a couple of pretty powerful sex scenes with Maria Bello.

MACY: I was really proud of those. I was very self-conscious about them, and it was Felicity who - my wife, Felicity Huffman - who talked me through them. And I realize, well, you know, you can't just go brain dead when it comes to the sex scene. You've got to look at that scene like you do any other scene. She said, well, you know, have you analyzed them yet? Would that help? And when I looked at them as any other scene - where's it start, where's it end, what changed, why is it in the movie - they became much more doable, because I had something to act. I didn't have to - there was a place to put my attention other than the fact that I was simulating sex in front of five Teamsters.

(LAUGHTER)

MACY: And they - I faced them sort of head-on - my fears, as it were. So we rehearsed them the day before we had to shoot them, with our clothes on, and we went through the entire scene, exactly who was going to do what at what point. And Wayne was the camera, so we knew where the camera - in other words, I controlled the environment, as opposed to just walking onstage, dropping my knickers and let people take pictures while we figure it out.

So I knew exactly what I was going to do. And that turned out to be a lovely choice, because both Maria and I - because we had tamed this monster. We sort of had control of what the scene was going to be like. We were in charge, and we got bold. And I really liked those scenes. They, in fact, you do see that something transpired in all the scenes, and something is different. They're not just about sex. They're about something else.

DAVIES: Well, William H. Macy, it's been fun. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

MACY: It's always a pleasure to be here. I love the show. Thank you so much. It's an honor.

DAVIES: William H. Macy stars in the Showtime series "Shameless," which is now in its third season and has been renewed for a fourth. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker on British singer Paloma Faith's new album. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Paloma Faith is a young British singer and actress who sings in an extravagantly emotional style. She's cited Etta James and Billie Holiday as influences. But rock critic Ken Tucker says that Faith's second album, "Fall to Grace," established is a distinctive Paloma Faith sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICKING UP THE PIECES")

PALOMA FAITH: (Singing) Do you think of her when you're with me? Repeat the memories you made together. Who's face do you see? Do you wish I was a bit more like her? Am I too loud? I'll play the clown to cover up all these doubts. Perfect heart, she's flawless. She's...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In culling through albums released late last year that I was still play with pleasure, Paloma Faith's "Fall to Grace" was a real keeper. In contrast to my pleasure, Faith was singing about her agony: her broken heart, her wracked sobs about ruined affairs, her choked goodbyes to lovers who'd left her. She made all this sound tremendously intense and exciting. Not for nothing did she title her previous album "Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOU'RE GONE")

FAITH: (Singing) When I'm with you, my heart sings. All the joy and everything washes over me and cleans me till I'm shining. For your touch, there are no words. I fly with high hopes and the birds. And I know there's nothing better, because I'm smiling. Everyone I've ever loved has left me lonely. Every time I let it go, I'm high and dry. Every time I think I'm one and only, I find myself alone, not knowing why. Oh, the mystery and the magic...

TUCKER: Throughout "Fall to Grace," Paloma Faith surrounds her surging voice with grand, vaulting structures of sound, lush orchestrations that, at their best, don't smother her sound. It's no wonder that she's found fans in older artists such as Elton John, with whom she recorded a charity single. Faith sometimes reminds me of Bryan Ferry, another singer who likes to stand tremulous in the presence of both heartache and elaborate arrangements, singing with an urgency that would sound campy were it not so convincingly sincere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGONY")

FAITH: (Singing) Use me, take me home and use me. Press your hands into my body. You'll be my sorrow. We both know it shows. Push me. Make me feel I'm weightless. Running. We will not escape this, shake this. You'll be addicted. I'll be inflicted. This is agony. But it's still a thrill. This could end in tragedy. Pour yourself all over. Oh, no time to waste. Let's fall from grace. Save me. Save me...

TUCKER: As an actress, Faith has appeared in the Terry Gilliam film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." In her music, she enacts scenarios of contrasts: the lonely girl, the woman who's found what she thinks, hopes, prays may be her soul mate.

For all her pop-star ambition, she convinces you how much she yearns for homebody stability in one of the best songs on this album, a tune called "Just Be." Mostly just the sound of Faith's voice and a piano, she implores the person she adores to, quote, "just say nothing, just sit next to me, just be." The rare simplicity and the starkness of the words and the tone she uses to put them across is striking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST BE")

FAITH: (Singing) Let's get old together. Let's be unhappy forever, 'cause there's no one else in this world that I'd rather be unhappy with. Let's be exposed and unprotected. Let's see one another when we're weak. Let's go our separate ways in the night like two moths but know that you're flying home to me. I was born thinking it would all be dreaming but I know that I wouldn't be happy that way.

(Singing) You wear me out with frustration and heartache and anger but we wait for the wave just to wash it away. Don't say...

TUCKER: Inevitably, as a young white female British singer with R&B and classic pop influences, Faith has been compared to both Amy Winehouse and Adele. She falls somewhere in the middle of those two: less blood-and-guts soulful than Winehouse, aspiring to the anthemic pose that Adele achieves with ease.

On stage, she tends to dress very formally, with long brocaded dresses. When she appeared on David Letterman's show, her hair was done up as though she planned to go uptown to attend the opera at Lincoln Center after the taping. If Paloma Faith can maintain the quality of the music she's making, she's going to have lots of fans following her every musical and social cue.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Fall to Grace" by Paloma Faith. Coming up, David Bianculli previews the FX show "The Americans" and the Netflix original series "House of Cards." This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This week brings two new high-profile drama series to television. One is "The Americans," premiering tonight on the FX network, about sleeper KGB agents living in the U.S. during the Reagan era. The other is "House of Cards", a new series premiering Friday, presented not by a cable or a broadcast network but by Netflix. Our TV critic David Bianculli previews them both.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Let's start with "The Americans." It's created by Joe Weisberg, a former member of the CIA, and its executive producers include Graham Yost, creator of another FX series, the excellent "Justified." Its premise takes something from today's headlines - a concern about sleeper cells of foreign terrorists on American soil, blending in and waiting for orders - and flips it.

Instead of modern times and al-Qaida, "The Americans" takes place in 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan's inauguration when the Soviet Union was feared, Reagan was newly elected and the Cold War heated up again. We meet a pair of Soviet agents who were given the assignment of an arranged marriage and moved to America more than a decade before, and who now live in the Washington suburbs with their two children, cover jobs as travel agents, and even a house with an actual white picket fence.

And we're asked to empathize with them and root for them, despite their allegiances and activities. No doubt that's why the central roles have been cast with extremely likable actors. The husband, whose American cover name is Philip Jennings, is played by Matthew Rhys, who played Kevin on ABC's "Brothers & Sisters." And Philip's wife, Elizabeth, who loves the KGB more than she loves her assigned husband, is played by Keri Russell, star of the WB series "Felicity."

"The Americans" provides both of them with dream roles. In the premiere episode, both Philip and Elizabeth adopt other disguises and identities to solicit information from targets, then return home, where they play the roles of ordinary Mom and Dad. Flashbacks flesh out their initial introduction and uneasy relationship, and there's a new wrinkle thrown at them early on: An FBI counterterrorist agent and his wife move in across the street, and the sleeper agents don't know if that's a coincidence or if the government suspects them.

Either way, I suspect that Noah Emmerich, the actor playing the FBI agent, may steal this show. He's the real sleeper here, and though I really like Russell's new tough-guy persona, "The Americans" truly comes to life whenever Emmerich shows up.

At least initially, though, it bogs down a bit during the flashbacks, which are too straightforward, and one action sequence - which has Philip and Elizabeth bonding a little as they embark on a dangerous mission together - makes a serious musical misstep. As they set off, without saying a word to one another as they go through their various spy motions, we hear on the soundtrack one of the most iconic music cues in all of TV history.

It's an homage, certainly, and a song that is true to the '80s era, but when I heard it, instead of pulling me more deeply into the drama, it made me laugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE AIR TONIGHT")

PHIL COLLINS: (Singing) I can feel it coming in the air tonight. Hold on.

BIANCULLI: If you were around during the decade when "The Americans" takes place, it's impossible to hear that particular Phil Collins' song without thinking of "Miami Vice." Other period music is used more effectively, but that's one that should have been avoided.

"House of Cards," on the other hand, hits the perfect tone right from the start. It's based on a wonderful British miniseries from 1990, which starred Ian Richardson as a career politician who spoke to the camera directly as he schemed and charmed his way through the corridors of power. That version, based on the novels by Michael Dobbs, was adapted by Andrew Davies, who wrote "Bridget Jones's Diary" and the TV versions of "Bleak House," "Pride and Prejudice" and "Vanity Fair."

This new American version is adapted by Beau Willimon, who replaces the House of Commons with the White House, an incoming prime minister with an incoming president, and lots of other details that make this new "House of Cards" the best TV series about American politics since "The West Wing."

In both the British and American versions of "House of Cards", the central character is the majority whip, played, in this 2013 incarnation, by Kevin Spacey, who, as Frank Underwood, is perfectly ruthless and ruthlessly perfect.

Robin Wright plays his equally ambitious and cold-blooded wife, Claire, and they're both like characters straight out of Shakespeare. She's Lady Macbeth, with her own insatiable drive and ambition, and he's Iago, the evil lieutenant who manipulates everyone below and above him.

And Frank, like many a character from Shakespeare, often pauses to address his audience directly, and privately, to reveal his innermost thoughts. He's giving a soliloquy but, as in this scene when he pauses during a reelection party to turn to the camera and speak, he turns us viewers into unindicted co-conspirators.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

KEVIN SPACEY: (as Frank) When it comes to the White House, you not only need the keys in your back pocket, but you need a gatekeeper. As for me, I'm just the lowly House majority whip. I keep things moving in a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude. My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving, but I won't have to be a plumber much longer. I've done my time. I've backed the right man.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Happy New Year!

SPACEY: (as Frank) Give and take. Welcome to Washington.

BIANCULLI: Filmed on location in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., "House of Cards" looks and feels authentic. And series creator and adapter Beau Willimon knows this world well: before and after becoming a playwright, he was a campaign worker for Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean.

The way Spacey's Underwood manipulates the press - embodied here by Kate Mara as a young newspaper reporter and blogger - is especially smart and credible. But all of "House of Cards" is intriguing and exciting. The first two episodes I previewed are so good, and so addictive, I can't wait to see more. And starting Friday, I won't have to. That's when Netflix, which financed "House of Cards", unveils not just the pilot, but all 13 episodes of the show's first season. Fans of the series, once they find it on Netflix's streaming service, can dive into some serious binge viewing and watch season one as fast as they want.

This isn't the first time on the Internet or on Netflix that an original production has been presented this way, but "House of Cards" is by far the best yet. It is to Netflix what "The Sopranos" was to HBO, what "The Shield" was to FX, what "Mad Men" was to AMC. It's an identity maker, and a game changer.

And unlike all those others, "House of Cards" arrives all at once. If the broadcast networks, especially, aren't frightened by this, they should be. Netflix, this week, isn't merely making great television, it's making TV history.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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